Is Dead Air Deadly in Web Conferencing?

With the proliferation of web conferencing, more and more businesses and institutions are beginning to use webinars and web conferencing for meetings, interviews, marketing, and education and training.

I remember in 1999 when the company I worked for at the time received our first web conferencing platform. It was called Placeware, and had the capability to connect users over distance showcasing both visual slides and audio. Because VoIP was not perfected back then, we used audio bridging via the phone instead. Surprisingly, this early model offered the ability to use break-out audio rooms. But it was not simple. Attendees were required to punch a series of numbers into the phone to be “partitioned” into separate audio conference rooms and then had to punch in a different number combination to return to the virtual “main room” after discussions.

Flash forward to today where our web conferencing tools provide many more affordances. For example, facilitating break-out rooms are a breeze now comparatively. With Adobe Connect, you merely press a button to prepare participants for break-outs, attendees are automatically divided into groups, facilitators can send broadcast messages to all, facilitators can easily pop into groups by dragging their own name into a group, and break-out groups can work on white boards that display for all to see when attendees re-join the main room. With video capability now easily incorporated into platforms like WebEx, GoToWebinar, and Adobe Connect, we have the added ability to introduce our visual personalities and presence to attendees. It will be exciting to see where web conferencing takes us in the next decade!

Since web conferencing is growing, it’s fitting for us to discuss efficiencies and effectiveness with these tools. This year and last year, I’ve heard a few professionals comment that instructors and facilitators of web conferencing should never allow dead air or silence during a webinar. You may have heard that as well. They reasoned that “dead air” is deadly to viewers and can cause attendees to wonder if a connection is lost.

Do you think silence in a webinar is cause for alarm? Let’s look at this more closely.

First, let’s identify where the term “dead air” originated. This is terminology which emerged from radio. If listeners heard silence over the radio, it was seen as deadly because listeners would obviously not have the benefit of knowing the full context. As a result, listeners might turn off the radio or change the station. If the silence occurred while a listener was tuned into a station, they might wonder what happened to their connection and leave. Yet radio is very different from web conferencing. Radio employs only one sense – auditory. There is no visual anchor. Web conferencing, on the other hand, employs both visual and audio senses. So it is unfair to compare apples and oranges. Even with brief, limited moments of silence in web conferencing, attendees are still anchored to a visual connection (unless, of course, they do lose the Internet connection).

Radio listeners also interact differently than webinar attendees. They may tune in or leave a radio program at any time. Yet in the context of web conferencing, attendees usually commit to the allocated time of the webinar (1 hour or more). These viewers often attend live for the duration or listen/view the webinar’s recording later.

Additionally, if we examine webinars from a learning perspective, short stints of silence prefaced by statements of “I’ll pause briefly here so you can study this visual,” can actually be useful to learning. They allow learners to better absorb visual content in some cases. From a cognitive load and learning sciences perspective, when learners are bombarded with trying to read text on a slide and hear audio commentary at the same time, they cannot do both well. A pause to allow learners to review a slide in silence allows them to focus, be attentive, and absorb content more fully without distracting and competing audio. Does this mean facilitators should pause for every slide? Absolutely not. Pause when the learner needs time to process, study a visual before hearing the explanation, or complete a short assignment during the webinar.

That said, silence should always be prefaced with an expectation-setting statement. Say you are going to pause briefly and why, as well as explain what learners are expected to do during that time (a short assignment, write on the white board, send a message in the chat queue, study a visual, answer a brief quiz, respond to a poll question, etc.) And yes, pauses should be brief and not lengthy.

After an onslaught of constant chatter, listeners can also begin to habituate which means they start to pay less attention to the stimulus because it is no longer novel. An occasional pregnant pause offers a refreshing “breath”/break in the litany of speech–breaking the constant talking pattern and allowing some breathing room cognitively for learners.

So limited and brief periods of silence throughout web conferencing, prefaced by statements that set the expectation, “I’ll pause briefly so you can study this visual for a moment” can actually be useful.

Dead air may be deadly on radio, but in web conferencing, it may actually “give life.”

What say you?

 

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